#3 – Avoiding Transference


It was only a few weeks into her new pastorate that Carol contracted a nasty gastric flu. As a consequence she had to miss a meeting of the vestry (board of elders). The following morning she received a call from the vestry chair.


“Carol I am sorry to hear that you have been sick this week. Obviously we noted your absence from the vestry last evening and we feel we need to impress upon you the importance of the senior pastor being in attendance at these meetings. We see it as a vital part of your accountability. We understand that you were sick this time around, but in the future we hope you will give these meetings due weight. It’s important to get these attitude things right as we often have important things to discuss!”

Wow! What was that? Was this a power play? Was it work-place bullying? Was it a signal that the health and well-being of the pastor was really of zero concern to the vestry? Carol took it as all those things and decided that for her own emotional well-being she would need to keep an emotional distance between her and vestry members. But she needn’t have. What Carol didn’t know until several months into her tenure was that her predecessor had not attended a single vestry meeting in the last two years of his tenure. The tone of rebuke and concern that Carol heard from the vestry chair was not personal it was Transference.

message stress

Transference can come with any number of messages: “You always guillotine discussion on the board.” “You hold the pulpit too tightly!” “You don’t show any interest in the youth ministry!” “You’re too controlling.” “You don’t respect the elders.” “You give the junior pastors too much rope.” “You’re unapproachable.” “You’re too slow in responding to problems.” “You’re not doing enough visiting!” 

If the content of the message genuinely doesn’t fit current reality there is a chance that you’re dealing with transference. Transference can happen in a couple of ways:

Reactive Transference

With this pattern all the frustrations that church members had wanted to voice to the previous pastor during his/her tenure but couldn’t, they now take the opportunity to express unapologetically to the new pastor – whether or not those frustrations bear any relation at all to the shape of the new pastor.  Most of the time this transference is done quite subconsciously.


We could think of reactive transference as “last straw transference.” The underlying emotion may be along the lines of “I have had quite enough of being controlled already!” or “I am not listening to any more hype!” or “I am sick to the back teeth of being herded into programs!”– not registering that it was in reality a previous pastor (or pastors) who maxed them out in those ways. People may not be able to recognize that what has hit that raw nerve in the present is in fact something quite minor or innocent. The backlog of emotion and frustration simply gets transferred, unedited, into the new situation.

With reactive transference people are unable to perceive how out of proportion their response is to the actual stimulus in front of them. They only know – and they know it viscerally – that they have zero patience left for whatever the thing is. Zero patience is of course another way of saying zero grace. And with zero grace positive relationship-building and productive conversation grind to a halt.

talk to the hand.jpg

Preemptive Transference

In this scenario the new pastor may find him/herself unexpectedly attacked for something tiny or something that might appear not to be a problem at all.

Case Study – One month into his tenure Aaron, the new pastor, invited his staff to each share an item for prayer in the area of their own portfolio. From out of nowhere Jada, the Assimilation Pastor, suddenly riled herself up and gave Aaron a more forceful answer than he had expected:

“Aaron, please do not get us to be all fake and talk as if we’re all best friends just sitting around itching to share all our deepest secrets. We really don’t need that. The fact is we’re actually here to do specific jobs of work! And it’s work we’re already well able and motivated to do. I know what you’re asking is well-intentioned, Aaron, but it is probably not the best use of time for most of us. You do understand(?) Some of us have been on this team for 10 years – more in some cases! So we already know each other real well – well enough to get along and work together…if you can find it in your heart to allow us the time to stop shooting the breeze and just get on with the job!”


Ouch! Naturally Aaron went home thinking, “What in the world did I do wrong today?” But what Aaron didn’t know was that his predecessor spent two thirds of every week for 300 weeks in a row asking his staff to “share and pray.” Not just in staff meetings but whenever he bumped into his team members in the offices, in the hallway, at the coffee station, or the copy machine or the bubbler! As much as the team appreciated the value of sharing and prayer this unusual over-emphasis ate so far into their work-time that they increasingly struggled to get their work done.

One by one team members started finding pretexts for scheduling their appointments out of office, working their phones in the parking lot, or attending to their emails at random coffee bars in between out of office appointments! Unfortunately Aaron didn’t know any of this background. So it took him completely by surprise when his reasonable (so he thought) invitation for colleagues to “share” a vision point or a prayer-need hit such a raw nerve!

puzzled looking Grant

Another name for preemptive transference could be “nip-it-in-the-bud transference.” Because, in this scenario Jada is not confused about who she is angry with. Neither is she confused about responding in proportion. Rather, in Jada’s mind she is simply acting early to prevent any repeat of what happened with the previous pastor – and nip this sharing in the bud before it becomes a problem! That’s why Jada’s reaction was so out of proportion.

Unfortunately the out-of-order instruction from Jada to her new boss and the force of emotion behind it set a poor cue for the junior staff and set a key pastoral relationship on a poor footing, leaving Aaron feeling that he was walking on eggshells. “Clearly,” he concluded, “this is a team that does not want to be in too close contact – least of all with me! That’s disappointing.”

mocking birds quarrelling.jpg

As you can see, with both with Reactive and Pre-emptive Tranference the emotional dysfunction of the previous tenure(s) gets unwittingly transferred into the new tenure. Hence the relationship with the current pastor suffers because of unresolved issues with the previous pastor. And all that happen without anyone realizing that’s what’s going on.

These kinds of Transference may sound complex. Yet in reality they can easily be avoided…

…if a church draws a breath, pauses and takes time over a couple of sessions with an Intentional Interim to identify the emotional loose ends relating to the previous tenure. This can be done simply peeling back some of the layers with questions like, “What did we really appreciate about previous Pastor N?” and “What were the things we found most challenging or even annoying?” “What were some of Pastor N’s eccentricities?” “What problems facing the church were left unresolved through the previous tenure?”

(In fact as I write a member of my own family is in just such a conversation with the pastoral search team at her Baptist church. The Intentional Interim facilitating their search team has positioned the transference conversation right at the very beginning of their process.)

My experience is that if these things kinds of questions get aired in love and good humour and a spirit of thankfulness, often that is all it takes to vent the steam, clear the air and free up expectations before the new pastor arrives.


(The case-studies are authentic but with places and names changed.)